At what point will Americans just refuse to pay huge sums of money to attend college? It’s hard to tell but this does make for an interesting element to the “is college worth it” discussion. According to an article by Richard Vedder in Forbes:

A recession and an education industry all but oblivious to price competition have combined to make students think something radical: Gee, maybe we’re getting rooked. All too often, college graduates incur crippling debt and don’t improve their job prospects.

It is still gospel among politicians that college education makes people better off. The federal government showers grants and tax subsidies on higher education; President Obama has set a goal to increase the percentage of Americans with two- or four-year college degrees from 40% now to 60% in 2020. The job market, though, is telling us that this is wasted effort.

This may be the wrong discussion, however.

So much of this debate about college “value” centers around an ambiguous idea of the benefits of higher education versus an explicit discussion of price. Maybe it should work the other way around. That is precisely the way American policymakers talk about public elementary and secondary education. One must graduate from high school for pretty simple reasons: in order to get any job or go to any college. But no one seems to know, or care, how much it really costs to educate someone through the 12th grade.

It is obviously “worth it” to become educated, in the sense that one becomes smarter and able to make responsible, informed decisions. But in terms of actual cash, it’s actually very, very hard to argue that college, or indeed any form of education, pays people back directly.

This does not mean, necessarily, that one shouldn’t go to college. What it does mean is that Americans shouldn’t spend so much damn money to go there.

Realistically there are very few entry-level positions that will enable someone to rapidly make the roughly $200,000 it cost to go to a private college. This isn’t just about student loans. Even if one went to college financed entirely by one’s parents it still looks kind of ridiculous.

How ridiculous is too ridiculous?

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer